Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa Claus is coming

I never meant to raise my child to believe in Santa Claus. A fictional supernatural being who gets the credit for staging the gift-giving festivity when everyone knows perfectly well it's the parents who did the work. That it's the parents' love that makes it happen.

But it turns out my usual approach to teaching him about the world -- which might be summed up as a threefold exposing him to situations, things and opportunities, keeping him safe and staying out of the way of his process -- doesn't work the same with Santa Claus as it does with say, gravity or sharing.

The world of physics, his developing body, his energy and his inborn drive for self-preservation provided everything he needed to learn to climb the steps to the slide and come down it. It was easy to learn what leads to stumbling and a skinned knee. The world of interacting humans likewise provides plenty of feedback about what happens when two children covet a single toy. Eventually each toddler learns that snatching and running leads not to an unhampered relationship with the object of desire, but only to weeping, screeching and unhappiness all around.

Not so with Santa Claus. His image is all around all year -- you notice this when you have a young charge -- and especially as the autumn deepens into winter. He's featured on episodes of otherwise non-Christmassy TV shows. Often the plot of these episodes turns on the nullification of one character's disbelief. Or he's simply there, as real as any other fictional being in the show. He's around. He's iconic.

He's the guy who brings presents to children. And children do get presents, after all. For a four-year-old, this is not a controversial syllogism.

Anyway, I thought we shouldn't tell Ulysses that Santa Claus exists. Donald thought we should. As it turned out, it wasn't our decision to make. There was no point at which we would bestow or withhold this piece of information. (Technically, misinformation.) The world has taught Ulysses about the person of Santa Claus. The only real choice is between going with the flow and convincing him that it's all made up. That there's not really any such guy.

In other words, to be really, really mean.

So I'm going with the flow.

Santa Claus is about as real as Spongebob. But how real is Spongebob, for Ulysses? Does Ulysses realize that there is no pineapple under the sea? I want him to know that Steven Hillenberg's imagination is the true wonder of Spongebob. That Tom Kenny, Patrick Warburton, Clancy Brown -- to name just a few of that show's marvelous voice actors -- are among the legions of artists who create this pulsingly alive semblance. There's nothing to gain from trying to explain this to him now. Soon enough he'll know that these guys are made up of lots of little drawings shown in succession, synched with audio recordings made elsewhere. What does he understand now? I'm not sure. But I'm sure it would be futile, not to say hurtful, to dog him with the notion that "Spongebob is not real." Well, there he is. Interacting with a whole world of characters and things. Uttering quotable quotes that we quote in this household. Learning life lessons that we cite.

Every night for the past week or so, Ulysses has told me, in the dark of the evening and often as we're turning out the lights, "Santa Claus is coming tonight."

Each night, I say, "Santa Claus is coming soon. But not tonight."

And Ulysses answers, matching my tone in an exaggerated singsong: "Yes, tonight."

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